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Searching for suspects or drugs? Police call a K-9

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Sgt. Jason Posel came up through the ranks, from Explorer to police reserve, from community service officer (CSO) in 1996 to full-time officer in 1998. Four years later, he took his next step, becoming a K-9 officer, and in 2014 he was promoted to sergeant, as well. Woodbury is the only department he has known.

“I’ve kind of grown up with the city,” he said.

Posel is living many a young officer’s dream — working on Special Weapons And Tactics (SWAT) detail with a K-9 partner.

When someone leaves a crime scene on foot — a shoplifter, or a suspect in burglaries, assaults, robberies, or homicides — the K-9 unit often gets the call. For Posel, work is anything but mundane, searching for a dangerous person is an exciting endeavor, and rewards come for a K-9 and its handler when the dog alerts to something a police officer might’ve never found without a partner.

“We take the most satisfaction in finding people or finding narcotics,” Posel said.

K-9s make police work safer for suspects and officers. Ambushes of police are on the rise, and the K-9 unit tips the advantage in officers’ favor, allowing police to call out a suspect who might be hiding around a corner ready to shoot. Avoiding a chase or a confrontation results in fewer injuries for perpetrators and police, Posel said.

This month, training begins for an additional K-9 for Woodbury Public Safety, which will be the department’s fourth.

Late last month, Woodbury’s first K-9 officer retired and a new officer started with the new K-9.

And last fall, the Woodbury Community Foundation assisted in creating a new funding source for the program.

Progression

In 2001, the K-9 program started in Woodbury with the donation of dogs to the city.

In the 1990s and 2000s, police in the Twin Cities could let an Animal Humane Society know that they were looking to train German Shepherds and the humane society would alert police when the dogs became available for adoption.

Posel, who didn’t grow up with dogs in the house, is working with his third dog in 14 years.

“SWAT and K-9, that would be cool — everyone says that, and I did, too,” Posel said. “I went on ride-alongs with K-9 handlers and learned about the commitment and what the job looks like before deciding I wanted to be a K-9 handler myself.

“I thought I would like it. I didn’t know I would love it.”

His first, Shadow, was a pound dog, a mixed-breed German Shepherd with a bit of a greyhound look. Shadow was super smart, Posel said, but he was a medium-drive dog, meaning he didn’t want to work all the time. For six years, Shadow and Posel teamed up.

As the popularity of K-9 programs grew in the U.S., the process for selecting a dog is increasingly in depth.

Posel knew he wanted his next dog from overseas and he researched online, where videos are available of dogs for sale. He watched for drive, grips, sociability, retrieval, and prey drive. The best dogs, in Posel’s opinion, come from Germany, Poland or eastern Europe. German Shepherds and Belgium Malinois are the most popular breeds used as police or military dogs.

To train the Woodbury K-9 unit, supervisor Posel achieved certification as a guest instructor through the St. Paul Police Department. The certification took three weeks, full time.

He also volunteered with a local Schutzhund club, which trains police K-9s.

“I was one of the decoys,” Posel said.

He used the time with the club members to learn how to evaluate K-9s from enthusiasts. He saw their training techniques and picked their brains with questions. He learned how to use rewards rather than militaristic consequences, and how to manipulate a K-9’s desires to condition them to help in police work.

When it was about time for a new K-9 partner, Posel was curious what he might be able to do with an ultra-energetic K-9 partner.

Niko, a Belgium Malinois, fit the bill.

“I really wanted to see what I could do with a high-drive dog,” Posel said. “This dog had everything I was looking for.”

From 12 weeks, Posel trained Niko on his own time. For about a year Shadow was working while Niko was learning the job. Niko was so energetic he would spin circles in the back seat of the squad car.

Niko worked with Posel for a couple of years, though, before unexpectedly dying from stomach ulcers.

Then came Baden, the sergeant’s current K-9 partner. He’s a 3-1/2-year-old German Shepherd from Slovakia with a high drive, but not hectic. Of Woodbury’s K-9s, only Baden is a SWAT dog, helping out regionally as well as locally, Posel said.

Along with Posel and Baden, the city employs officer Brian Cline and K-9 Nova, Natalie Bauer and K-9 Bosco, and officer Tony Ofstead and K-9 Roguen.

Building the program

Worldwide, demand is high for well-trained K-9 partners.

“What they really bring to the table is their nose,” Posel said. “It’s so much better than ours.”

All of Woodbury Public Safety’s police dogs are owned by the city, live with their handlers and are narcotics certified.

Having apprehension dogs is not the goal of the department, Posel said. On the scene of a crime, the presence of a K-9 offers police a psychological deterrent, making suspects less likely to run.

Police dogs’ key role is to expedite the search process.

When the police department needs to clear a building, it can take time, but dogs can smell an odor on the other side of a door. Dogs help officers be proactive, rather than always being reactive. K-9s’ alerts offer early warning of potential ambushes by suspects. However hard to quantify, potentially deadly situations for suspects and officers can be avoided, Posel said.

Another positive of the program is the ease of community outreach when a K-9 is present. Dogs are a “bridge to communication” with the public, Posel said.

After a conversation starter, like a K-9 demonstration, kids and other residents often ask questions about how dogs are used in police work, and get to know the officers, often building strong relationships.

Police officer Jeff Gottstein was Woodbury’s first K-9 handler, working with K-9 partners Andy and Levi.

Washington County had K-9s, and Woodbury Public Safety officers and administration saw the effectiveness of the unit. Local K-9s reduced response times from the K-9 unit and helped police do their jobs more safely. Woodbury wasn’t reinventing the wheel.

They had another highly trained tool to use on the street, and local leaders were supportive of equipping their officers.

“We wouldn’t be able to have the program without the community support,” Posel said.

K-9s are trained through the U.S. Police Canine Association trials and regional certifications. Dogs learn obedience, agility, suspect search, article search and apprehension. Narcotics certification involves finding “hides” in cars and rooms.

Woodbury’s K-9s train locally on a bi-monthly basis, as well as daily work with their handlers. A group of decoys, usually officers who are interested in becoming K-9 handlers, assist.

The dogs need to stay physically fit and mentally engaged and aggressive but also obedient. It’s a daily process for a K-9 to learn and follow cues from its handler.

“We spend more time with these dogs than we do with our own families,” Posel said of Baden, who lives with his handler. “He’s with me all the time.”

K-9s are partners, not pets.

In its K-9 handlers, the city is looking for good cops who are cool under pressure and passionate about the program.

“Skill only gets you so far,” Posel said, “and then the rest is passion.”

Under Posel’s supervision, Woodbury keeps high standards for its K-9 program, the sergeant said. “There’s a passing score — and the near-perfect score.”

Woodbury’s K-9s are part of a team-policing model, Posel said. “Our goal has been to get as much around-the-clock coverage as possible.”

Two K-9s for each of two teams has been a goal, but as the city grew, the department has always received the number of dogs that were warranted, Posel said.

Sustenance

The K-9 program has been supported by new money since November, when Donna Smith Stafford announced the Koins for K-9s fundraising effort.

When her husband, Bruce Stafford, passed away in 2014, after 35 years as a HealthEast paramedic and 22 as a Woodbury firefighter, Stafford experienced an outpouring of support.

“One of the ways that I can give back,” Stafford told the Woodbury City Council last fall, “is through the Woodbury Community Foundation — which was started by Bruce’s father, Dick Stafford — I started the Bruce Stafford Public Safety Appreciation Legacy Fund.

“The purpose of the fund is to purchase K-9s and equipment for the city of Woodbury so that all of our first responders have one more tool to help them when they’re out there.

“I have been supported and appreciated by so many, and this is a way for everything I’ve been given by our community.”

Ofstead, the city’s newest handler, and Woodbury Community Foundation president Jack Lanners joined Stafford, Cline and Nova at a council meeting last November. Nova was slightly antsy.

“He just wants to go out and train, probably,” Mayor Mary Giuliani Stevens said.

Stafford said 89 Koins for K-9s collection boxes were placed throughout the city.

“We’re asking people to help us sustain this fund,” Stafford said. “When you’re out and about, drop in a few coins so that we can keep the equipment and officers that they need going for a long, long time.”

Posel, for one, is appreciative for the help. Residents have been supportive of the K-9 program since its inception.

“The Stafford grant is the conduit to the fourth dog,” Posel said. “The community support has been tremendous. We’ve been very fortunate.”

The K-9 program isn’t cheap, with training to be purchased, as well as squad cars specific to K-9 use.

New K-9

On Jan. 26, Gottstein retired after working for the department for 22 years, several as a field training officer.

On the same day, the city turned a new leaf.

Ofstead’s new partner, K-9 Roguen, is a 1-year-old German Shepherd from Poland.

“The two met on Tuesday,” Woodbury Public Safety posted on Facebook on Jan. 29, “and Officer Ofstead quickly learned Roguen is very curious and fairly social.”

Obedience training starts in March.

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